Wednesday, March 03, 2004

The oracle speaks:

Here's an article by Professor John J. Pitney, Jr, from Claremont McKenna College. I was lucky enough to study under Professor Pitney while I was at Claremont. He's one of the two most brilliant minds I've ever had the honor of meeting. And he's not giving me grades anymore, so you know that's sincere.

The California primary

Too late, Too weird, Too big, Too lopsided

By John J. Pitney Jr.
February 29, 2004

National politicians treat California as if it were a check-cashing outfit in a rough neighborhood. They swoop in to collect campaign contributions, and then rush out as fast as they can. All the major presidential candidates have held fund-raising events here, but they have spent little time or money seeking votes in Tuesday's primary. And right now, many smart observers think that the party nominees will slight the state in the fall campaign.

We Californians think of ourselves as the center of the universe. So why do we languish at the seedy outskirts of American politics? In the eyes of political operatives, we're too late, too weird, too big, and too lopsided.

For many years, California held its presidential primary in June. Sometimes it would be the climactic battle of a long nomination war. Barry Goldwater clinched the 1964 Republican nomination by edging out Nelson Rockefeller. Eight years later the state proved decisive for Democrat George McGovern. But then states started moving their primaries and caucuses to earlier and earlier dates, and by the 1990s California had become the Golden Afterthought.

In 1996, as a one-time experiment, the state held its primary on the fourth Tuesday in March. That date was still too late: Bill Clinton and Bob Dole had already locked up their nominations. Pete Wilson then signed a bill moving the primary to the first Tuesday in March. "Our political clout will finally be worthy of our economic and cultural importance to America," he said. Nope, we weren't worthy after all. In 2000, Al Gore and George Bush were the presumptive nominees by the end of February. A similar pattern seems to be shaping up this year.

Yogi Berra might as well have been describing the California primary when he said: "It gets late early out there."

And yes, the political community does think of us as "out there." Easterners used to say that when the country tilted westward, all the loose nuts rolled into California. Our reputation for weirdness gets a boost every time a cable network cuts away to our latest car chase or celebrity trial. Last fall, non-Californians pointed to our recall election as further proof of left-coast lunacy.

Consequently, out-of-state politicians are skittish about spending too much time here. Democratic Senators John Kerry and John Edwards apparently worry that Californians will demand that they take a stand on wheat-germ worship.

It's a bad rap, since we're not as odd as other people believe. When Arnold Schwarzenegger won the governorship, Easterners thought that he would romp bare-chested through Sacramento, tossing legislators around like Nerf Balls.

Instead, he is now appearing – fully clothed – as a bipartisan problem-solver who speaks of fiscal prudence. It is as if he were the muscular guy on the beach who finally achieved his dream of making the Accountants' Hall of Fame.

The state's sheer size is a more justifiable concern. With over 35 million people – a larger population than Canada – California is more like a country than an ordinary state. Los Angeles County alone has more people than Kerry's Massachusetts or Edwards' North Carolina.

Size does matter. In Iowa and New Hampshire, the Democratic candidates could make progress by shaking hands and speaking at town hall meetings. Such retail politics cannot work in a place where even the state senate districts hold more people than all of South Dakota. The only way to reach a large share of the California electorate is by spending enormous sums on direct mail or broadcast advertising.

If you are way ahead (like Kerry) or way behind (like Edwards), it makes no sense to plunge a big investment into the California primary. It probably would not change the outcome very much, and it would surely divert your scarce campaign resources from closer states where it might make a bigger difference.

Pointing to the last three presidential elections, the oddsmakers think that the fall campaign will be just as lopsided. The elder Bush largely ignored California in the last months of the 1992 race, thereby letting Clinton romp to an even bigger margin. State Republicans got angry because top-of-the-ticket weakness trickled down to other races. In atonement for the sins of 1992, Dole and later the younger Bush made stronger campaign efforts here. They still lost, big time, and the 2000 Bush campaign probably came to regret its California push. Had it spent the money in Florida, Iowa, and New Mexico, Bush would have had a clear-cut victory instead of a disputed outcome. And now Kerry and Edwards lead Bush in California trial-heat polls for 2004.

Things were not always so.

In 1916, California had the pivotal role that Florida enjoyed four years ago. With less than 1 percent separating the candidates, its 13 electoral votes tipped the election from Republican Charles Evans Hughes to Democrat Woodrow Wilson. By the late 1940s, population growth had made it a bigger prize in the Electoral College, and it stayed highly competitive. In 1949, the great political journalist Carey McWilliams wrote: "California is a state that lacks a political gyroscope, a state that swings and sways, spins and turns in accordance with its own peculiar dynamics."

Accordingly, party leaders considered Californians for presidential and vice presidential nominations. A Californian was on a national ticket in eight of ten elections between 1948 and 1984. (In 1968, Nixon technically had a residence in New York, but his roots remained in California.)

But since the early 1990s, California politicians have been conspicuously absent from short lists of presidential and vice presidential possibilities.

Few pundits think that the Democratic nominee's running mate will be Barbara Boxer or Dianne Feinstein, much less Susan Davis or Bob Filner.

Will California ever regain its political status? California will just keep getting bigger, so the size problem won't go away. If you think the weirdness problem will abate, just ponder three words: "Michael Jackson Trial."

In theory, the lateness problem is more tractable. Some reformers have talked about rotating the primary calendar so that every state would occasionally take part in the first batch of primaries. When it came our turn, we'd see presidential candidates stump in Claremont, California, instead of Claremont, New Hampshire. What are the chances for such a reform? About as great as the chances that former Gov. Gray Davis will provide the halftime entertainment at next year's Super Bowl.

That leaves our lopsidedness. And here, we might catch some glimmers of change. In 2002, Republican Bill Simon ran the worst gubernatorial campaign in modern memory. When hearing about it, Republican politicians shudder just as movie buffs do whenever somebody brings up "Heaven's Gate" or "Gigli." But Gray Davis outpolled Simon by only a few points. What is more telling, the rest of the Republican ticket ran much better than anyone expected. In the race for state controller, conservative Tom McClintock ran just three-tenths of one percent behind Steve Westly.

Then came Arnold. Together, he and McClintock won 62 percent of the vote in the 2003 replacement election. Despite its unusual circumstances, this outcome shows that Californians are not totally averse to voting Republican at the statewide level.

If the trend keeps up, national politicians might someday figure that California is competitive enough to fight for.

Pitney Jr. is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

The California primary | The San Diego Union-Tribune

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